The atrium of the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art is standing-room only. Couples sip wine in seats. Late comers huddle in every available space. Some stand in the uptown museum’s gift shop trying to get a glimpse of the Ziad Jazz Quartet – the versatile house band for the Bechtler’s successful monthly jazz series – and its guest vocalist.
The two-night engagement by Gastonia native and Atlanta-based actress/singer Maria Howell (“The Color Purple,” currently NBC’s “Revolution”) isn’t a typical evening, but it is an indication of how well its jazz series is doing.
“That was a special event,” says Christopher Lawing, vice president of programming for the Bechtler. “What we’re shooting for is no more than 275 per concert, maybe 300.”
The Bechtler’s first Friday concert series regularly attracts sell-out crowds, so it’s expanding from one show to two beginning with the Ziad Jazz Quartet’s Latin Jazz concert Aug. 2.
“When we’re turning away 100 or so people each and every concert, and selling out online a week before, that tells me we need to do something different,” says Lawing.
Separate concerts will take place at 6 and 8:15 p.m. This keeps audiences from spilling into the gift shop.
“I plan the audience to be no larger than people can comfortably and emotionally connect with the performance,” Lawing says. “I want to keep it intimate.”
The turnout for Jazz at the Bechtler has been steadily growing since its first show drew about 60 people in May 2010 – just months after the museum opened. By the end of the summer, 300-350 people were coming to each concert.
Like the museum’s film, chamber music and family programs, the jazz series is tied to its visual art.
“We always try to tie it back into who we are as a museum or modern art in general,” Lawing says. “The jazz we present is the sweet spot for the jazz era. Post-war Europe is the era for our collection. We always try to make a connection. People appreciate that. Music, dance, art, theater – these things didn’t just happen in bubbles.”
While many arts organizations are struggling in the current economic climate, the jazz series has done surprisingly well in attracting music fans who may not be museum members.
Adds jazz promoter Tammy Greene, who has watched the popularity of live jazz increase over the past few years: “I think that the word of mouth is helping the Bechtler grow, which in turn is good for jazz overall. I think people are now searching for jazz in Charlotte and finding it various places. It’s pretty exciting. I always knew in my heart that there are jazz lovers here.”
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